In the daily unfolding drama behind the recent investigation by a United Nations team on the use of chemical weapons in Syria, UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon announced today that all biomedical and environmental samples gathered by the inspectors “at sites of possible chemical weapons use in Syria” will arrive at designated laboratories in Europe by Sept. 4.
“We are doing our utmost to expedite the process,” Ban said at a press briefing, without detailing when results will be available.
The investigation team, consisting of nine members from the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons, based in The Hague, three World Health Organization experts and led by Dr. Ake Sellstrom, a Swedish scientist, first arrived in Damascus on Aug. 18 to do its work. (Angela Kane, a German and the chief of Disarmament Affairs at the UN, is in charge of the entire operation.) While the team began its inquiries into at least three alleged attacks, more accusations of chemical weapon use emerged after the release of toxic gas in a Damascus suburb, Ghouta, on Aug. 21, killing at least 1,400 people, about a third of them children, according to the United States. The UN team switched gears to focus on that incident first, given the scale and immediacy of the attack.
From the start, the team was mandated to determine whether chemical weapons had been used but not who used them. And at the press briefing, Ban said that he had made the decision for the team’s narrow mandate not to place blame, a decision that has incited much controversy, as it seems to disregard responsibility.
“One may think that it is a limit, but this is based on the recognized standard of international community,” Ban said, adding that the team was working closely with the World Health Organization and the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons on adhering to established international protocols for analyzing the samples.
Ban’s announcement about the status of the analysis occurs as the United States said it already had evidence that the Syrian government used a toxic gas in Ghouta on Aug. 21. United States Secretary of State John F. Kerry said this weekend that new laboratory tests showed traces of sarin, an extremely lethal nerve agent, in blood and hair samples collected from emergency workers who responded to Ghouta.
Kerry said the samples had not been supplied by the UN team. A UN spokesman also said over the weekend that the UN continues its call on all member states — without mentioning the US per se — to provide any such findings to the UN to aid its investigation. Additionally, President Obama announced on Sept. 1 that he had decided to hold off an attack on Syria for the moment in responding to the use of chemical weapons by the Syrian government and that he would first seek formal backing from Congress, delaying the prospect of an offshore missile attack by the US.
Once the UN analysis is completed, a report will be given to Ban, who will share the results with all UN member countries, including the Security Council, Ban said at the briefing.
He reiterated that it was up to the Security Council, which “has primary responsibility for international peace and security,” to decide how to deal with the investigation’s results.
In answering a question from the press about a potential US missile attack on Syria, Ban said that the use of force was lawful under the UN Charter under two circumstances only: in self-defense and/or whether the Security Council authorizes such action. (The last time the council did so was when it approved aerial attacks on Libya in 2011 to protect civilians against assaults by their own leader, Col. Muammar el-Qaddafi.)
The Security Council, Ban said, “needs to show leadership” in uniting and developing an appropriate response should the analysis show that chemical weapons were used. Such weapons are banned by 189 countries (but not Syria) through the Chemical Weapons Convention; if they were deployed, Ban said, the act is considered a war crime and must be punished.
The council has been frozen this year on passing any resolution pertaining to the civil war in Syria, with Russia and China, both permanent members, blocking action by the other three permanent members, Britain, France and the US. In 2011 and 2012, China and Russia vetoed three resolutions on Syria condemning the government’s attacks against civilians.
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Dulcie Leimbach is a co-founder, with Barbara Crossette, of PassBlue. For PassBlue and other publications, Leimbach has reported from New York and overseas from West Africa (Burkina Faso and Mali) and from Europe (Scotland, Sicily, Vienna, Budapest, Kyiv, Armenia, Iceland and The Hague). She has provided commentary on the UN for BBC World Radio, ARD German TV and Radio, NHK’s English channel, Background Briefing with Ian Masters/KPFK Radio in Los Angeles and the Foreign Press Association.
Previously, she was an editor for the Coalition for the UN Convention Against Corruption; from 2008 to 2011, she was the publications director of the United Nations Association of the USA. Before UNA, Leimbach was an editor at The New York Times for more than 20 years, editing and writing for most sections of the paper, including the Magazine, Book Review and Op-Ed. She began her reporting career in small-town papers in San Diego, Calif., and Boulder, Colo., graduating to the Rocky Mountain News in Denver and then working at The Times. Leimbach has been a fellow at the CUNY Graduate Center’s Ralph Bunche Institute for International Studies as well as at Yaddo, the artists’ colony in Saratoga Springs, N.Y.; taught news reporting at Hofstra University; and guest-lectured at the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism and the CUNY Journalism School. She graduated from the University of Colorado and has an M.F.A. in writing from Warren Wilson College in North Carolina. She lives in Brooklyn, N.Y.